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US FDA Investigates Chemical Sunscreen Ingredients

by kelly / May, 8 2019 01:30

Picture of woman putting sunscreen on her shoulderImage © Fort George G. Meade Office

The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recently conducted a study around four chemical sunscreen ingredients to determine their safety. The results are complicated and while at Block Island Organics we make mineral only sunscreens – we feel it’s important to keep people up on the latest news in sun protection. It’s part of our mission to educate and keep consumers in the know.

Chemical Sunscreens Absorb Into the Body

The four chemical sunscreens studied were avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule and the major finding is that these common UV filters enter the bloodstream at levels that exceeded the threshold established by the FDA. Is that a problem? TBD and more on that below.

As for the study details, the FDA conducted a small clinical study with 24 volunteers – 12 women and 12 men. Each volunteer was give one of four commercially available sunscreens with one of the four above chemical UV ingredients. They were then asked to apply the sunscreens four times a day for four day to 75% of their bodies (about the amount you’d apply if wearing a bathing suit). Given the common recommendation to re-apply sunscreen every two hours, that sounds like about 8 hours worth of sunscreen but I’m not sure if that’s what the study intended. The researchers then collected blood every few hours to analyze for the presence of chemical sunscreen ingredients in the body.

The results are fascinating. Scientists discovered that while it took only a few hours for the ingredient levels to spike in the body – the levels of avobenzone, oxybenzone, and octocrylene in the body continued to rise as daily use continued and then remained in the body for at least 24 hours after use ended.

Is Chemical Absorption Problematic

While the study showed that these chemical sunscreens penetrate into the blood stream – it does not on its own mean that these ingredients are not safe.

In an editorial accompanying the new study, former FDA Chairman Dr. Robert Califf wrote that even though the chemical sunscreen levels are "well above the FDA guideline does not mean these ingredients are unsafe."

As dermatologist Dr. David Leffell and spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology explains:

"Studies need to be performed to evaluate this finding and determine whether there are true medical implications to absorption of certain ingredients."

Where Do We Go From Here

The FDA has asked that chemical sunscreen manufacturers research these ingredients more before they can be considered "generally regarded as safe and effective” (GRAS or GRASE) by them. GRAS is as designation by the FDA that a chemical or substance is considered safe by experts.

Don’t Stop Using Sunscreen Say Experts (We Agree)

The natural question after a study like this is – should I stop using sunscreen? The answer by experts is NO.

Dr. Lefell says, “continue to be aggressive about sun protection”. It’s important to remember that skin cancer is on the rise and is the most common form of cancer. And avoiding UV exposure is the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers.

As Scott Faber senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) explains:

"The sun is the real enemy here…It's not news that things that you put on your skin are absorbed into the body...This study is the FDA's way of showing sunscreen manufacturers they need to do the studies to see if chemical absorption poses health risks."

Also if you want to avoid chemical sunscreens - choose a mineral sunscreen. The FDA recognizes mineral UV filters - zinc oxide and titanium dioxide - as GRAS.

Just make sure if you buy a sunscreen product labeled as “mineral” that it’s in fact a mineral only sunscreen. There are many sunscreens marketed as mineral that also use chemical filters. To check – look at the sunscreen’s drug facts panel (it’s required to be on a sunscreen’s outermost packaging) and the only two ingredients listed under its active ingredients should be zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. FYI Block Island Organics sunscreens are truly mineral only Smile.

Safe Sun Protection

The bottom line is that more research needs to done around these common chemical sunscreen ingredients. In the meantime – don’t stop protecting your skin from sun. Why? These stats and facts from the Skin Cancer Foundation tell a compelling story:

  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a proven human carcinogen.
  • More people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined.
  • The diagnosis and treatment of nonmelanoma skin cancers in the U.S. increased by 77 percent between 1994 and 2014.
  • Regular daily use of an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen reduces the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by about 40 percent.
  • The vast majority of melanomas are caused by the sun. In fact, one UK study found that about 86 percent of melanomas can be attributed to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.
  • The number of melanoma deaths is expected to decrease by 22 percent in 2019.
  • Regular daily use of an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen reduces the risk of developing melanoma by 50 percent.
  • An estimated 90 percent of skin aging is caused by the sun.
  • Sun damage is cumulative. Only about 23 percent of lifetime exposure occurs by age 18.
  • People who use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher daily show 24 percent less skin aging than those who do not use sunscreen daily.

For even more sun safety tips and news check out our Suncare Smarts blog series.

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